WASHINGTON, D.C., July 27—The wave of consolidation sweeping the public relations industry has certainly made a splash in the nation’s capital, where the recent merger of Weber Shandwick and BSMG Worldwide created an $80 million powerhouse. Increasingly, the largest firms are incorporating public affairs, media relations, research, issues advertising and direct lobbying under one roof—an array of services their smaller competitors cannot hope to match.
So is there a future for independent firms in the Washington market? Colburn Aker thinks there is, and he has been surprising successful in persuading others that he’s right, most recently luring seasoned D.C. hand John Jordan (formerly of Weber Shandwick and most recently head of the technology practice at Porter Novelli’s Washington office) to join him at The Aker Partners, where he will be consulting partner and will launch a new health technology practice.
“This is a people business, and the quality of the people is key,” says Jackson. “Given growing client concerns about the level of service they receive at larger agencies, I think there’s tremendous growth potential at a firm like The Aker Partners.”
Aker, who spent six years in the Washington office of Hill & Knowlton, founded his own firm in 1983 and set out to build a “partner directed” firm, one in which senior advisors would be involved in client business on a daily basis. Capitol Hill veteran Michele Amberson, who served as press secretary to two Clinton cabinet members, is an associate partner, and consulting partners include former association executive Tim Gorman and E. Burce Harrison, who once led one of the largest independent PR firms in the nation’s capital.
“I joined Hill & Knowlton when it had 17 people in Washington, and by the time I left it had 350 people,” says Aker. “I always felt we would want to remain a more manageable size, and work toward improving client attention and providing a uniquely personal service. It’s an approach that has allowed me to stay in the counseling business.”
The firm has 15 people and about 10 accounts—a small enough number that Aker can be involved with all of them. But over the past three years the firm has been growing at a healthy pace, largely due to its healthcare practice and a technology group that was launched three years ago. With the slow down in the tech sector, Aker hopes to leverage the firm’s expertise to create a specialist health technology group that will work with medical device and biotech clients.
“There are only a couple of firms that market themselves as having an expertise in this area, but we believe it could be one of the fastest growing markets over the next couple of years,” Aker says. “If you look at where we are as a society, people want to live longer and live better and that’s creating an interest in how healthcare can be improved through technology. It’s also creating a need for PR, because whenever you have a sector that uses sophisticated technology there is a need for education.”
Jackson agrees. He believes the sector will receive a boost from the National Institutes of Health, following bipartisan support for budget increases that will enable the agency to spend more time on health technology issues. In addition, the health technology sector is thriving in northern Virginia, he says. As it has throughout its history, The Aker Partners will be able to offer both marketing and public affairs counsel to clients.